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Why is Louisiana ranked so low in education?

In January, Education Week released its latest comparison of educational achievement among the states, and once again, Louisiana is near the bottom of the list. In fact, we are among the only eight states to score lower than a “C” on the publication’s list.

Louisiana earned a D+, ranking us alongside Alabama, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Arizona, and Idaho. Only New Mexico and Nevada had lower grades.

In spite of more than two decades worth of education reform, beginning with Gov. Buddy Roemer’s ill-fated LaTIP/LaTEP, through Governor Kathleen Blanco’s introduction of the Value Added Model of teacher evaluation, to Bobby Jindal’s radical upheaval, Louisiana’s efforts have not significantly changed our national rankings.

We believe there was a lot wrong with these efforts, mainly that they tended to blame and shame teachers and public schools for all the problems, without asking teachers what could really help, and without providing the resources necessary to fundamentally change our schools.

Too often, the focus has been on diverting resources away from public schools in favor of private and religious schools and corporate-styled charter schools.

For several years, disruption has been the order of the day. From the controversy over Common Core standards to evaluation schemes that constantly changed, teachers and parents have been at a loss to understand the direction that elected leaders were taking public education in Louisiana.

While those leaders have touted incremental improvements in student performance, teachers and the general public remain skeptical, and with good reason. This year, for example, many schools have seen a decline in their state-issued report cards. Not because anything has changed in the schools, but because the state changed the way it calculates the scores.

Only recently have elected officials noticed the unfairness in grading special needs schools with the same measures used for all other schools, labeling them as failures even though they may be serving their students very well.

To be sure, there are some positive things happening in education. We have come to understand the importance of early childhood education, and are putting more resources into this vital component.

And we are rethinking the way we train new teachers, making yearlong internships a part of the process by which new teachers become certified (although the program only applies to students in traditional education schools, and not to those who get their certification through fast-tracked alternative programs).

These improvements are working around the edges of our education system, and it may take years for positive benefits to show themselves. Past experience shows that our leaders have little patience, and tend to rush new changes into effect in hopes of showing fast results.

Shouldn’t we be looking at those states that, year after year, are at the top of Education Week’s annual report? What are they doing that we are not?

The five top-ranked states in the Education Week survey all have robust economic environments, high K-12 test scores and graduation rates, relatively high spending on schools, strong foundations in early childhood, and widespread postsecondary participation (a large number of their students go into and through college).

Louisiana is one of the poorest states in the nation. Our economy is not diversified enough to withstand big fluctuations in the price of fossil fuels. Nearly a quarter of our high school students don’t graduate, we rank 49th in the percentage of college graduates, and our education spending has been frozen for most of the past decade.

When our legislature convenes in March, some will argue that teacher unions are at the root of our educational problems. Yet every one of the high-performing states have strong teacher unions that bargain collectively with their school boards.

And none of the lowest ranking states have collective bargaining laws. In Louisiana, only a handful of school districts negotiate contracts with educators. Some of those are among the state’s highest ranking districts.

That isn’t to imply that unions have all the answers to our problems, but it does suggest that we are not the problem.

It’s time to start looking for solutions that really solve our problems. Time to lift whole communities, and create schools that are seen as part of the whole instead of somehow to be set aside and judged separately from the rest of our society.

Take a deeper look at the states that outperform us educationally, and you’ll see that they beat us in other measures as well. Education contributes to a good quality of life, but a good quality of life is also essential to creating a good education system.